I Am The Perfect Servant, I Have No Life: Gosford Park (2001)

After watching the recent PBS broadcasting of Downton Abbey Revisited and discovering that Julian Fellowes was responsible for not only this spectacular Masterpiece Theater show, but Gosford Park as well I knew I had no excuse not to watch the film.  Upon discovering that the film was directed by Robert Altman I could not restrain my desires to see the work.  Chocked full of considerably notable British actors, Gosford Park is a brilliant whodunit with the cinematic poise and narrative complexities one comes to expect from the late director.  Furthermore, this work, while not perfect, serves as a great vision as to what would become something like Downton Abbey and exceptionally serious piece of cultural output masking itself under the guise of dark comedy.  Abound with social commentaries and political discourse one finds very little trouble finding the way in which satire subtly evolves to make a grander statement something that, by this point, was well perfected in Altman's oeuvre, although he had been doing it since at least the times of Nashville.  Of course, Altman is not entirely to be credited for this film, because it certainly has much to do with the writing and acting as well, Fellowes and co-writer Bob Balaban create a dialogue that is both quick, believable and quite memorable.  It has the feel of a Aaron Sorkin film without the dialogue that seems far to perfected to reflect that of normal engagements.  Again Gosford Park is not the most brilliant piece of cinema ever released and manages to fall short of being perfected, but it is an exceptional work and has moments of sheer brilliance, often using the visual as a means to advance the narrative or undermine the events occurring.  Altman often fills the space of a shot with multiple events, many of which the characters are unaware of occurring and just when you think you have pieced together the next moment in the plot a not so subtle cinematic clue will remind you that perhaps not all is as one expects and indeed anybody is capable of an act of aggression when they have been doubly wronged.

Much like many of the period pieces presented on Masterpiece Theater, Gosford Park focuses on the life of people living on an estate and in early forties Britain that meant the existence of a life above and below stairs.  Above stairs a party is being planned for the arrival of a group led by Sir William (Michael Gambon) a surly elderly gentleman who clearly thinks himself superior to not only his guests and staff but the rest of his family as well.  Other occupants film the house, most memorably the demeaning and flippant Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), as well as American director Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), his star actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and Weissman's servant Henry Denton (Ryan Phillipe).  Of course there is also a world below preparing the meals, including the mysterious Mr. Parks (Clive Owen) who has been hired on specifically to help with a guest, the sexually active and always promiscuous Bertha (Teresa Churcher), the sly yet surprisingly honest George (Richard E. Grant) and even the poised under pressure Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren).  Things slowly begin to unravel as a hunting party proves a bust when Sir William is grazed by a misguided bullet and it is revealed that Henry is not a servant, but actually one of Mr. Weissman's up and coming actors who felt it a challenge to pass as a servant, much to the chagrin of the staff.  Yet things explode into chaos when Sir William is murder, especially considering that he has been stabbed, only to discover that he was dead before the attack, a result of poisoning.  Even with the emergence of the self-proclaimed expert detective Inspector Thomson (Stephen Fry) little is made way in discovering who the killer is and viewers are left to make the discovery upon the admission of various individuals throughout the film.  The reveal is understated and of course somewhat inconsequential to the larger commentary within the film.

The obvious commentary resides in the social divisions that were indicative in Britain in the early 20th century, something that certainly still exists (Think House of Lords/House of Commons) but certainly does not have the clear spatial divide that would have existed in Pre-WW2 days.  The question though in the film is more of where a line should be drawn as to the expectations of those in servility towards their masters, particularly when the questions and demands are of a particularly problematic nature.  We see this in a simple sense with The Countess of Trentham who often requires her maid to clean clothing and make food only to decide upon its delivery or completion that she no longer desires it, yet she has little, if no, awareness for the work and effort placed upon getting these tasks done and seems content to assume that they occur magically.  Similarly individuals like Lord William and Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) find that it is completely within their means to demand sexual favors of their staff, or within their limits to touch and harass their servants in whatever way they please, a clearly problematic statement on oppression and power dynamics.  Yet, the staff under the stairs has managed to create their own forms of rebellion, whether it be prolong smoke breaks, the consumption of the wine post dinners or a refusal to curtail meals to dietary demands.  The emergence of Inspector Thomson completely undermines the notions of division though, because as a person of the law he is able to move between both spaces to inquire and cannot be turned away, even by the Countess who sees his intrusion as uncivil, despite its inherent civic nature.  Yet even as he attempts to cross class barriers, whilst trying to help himself to libations in the library his assistant reminds him that they have not dusted those bottles, although it more importantly suggests that he cannot have access to certain privileges, regardless of the law.

Key Scene:  The moment when bloody mary's are made for the outdoor lunch serves as the turning point for the entire films shift into a crime drama and one dropped glass serves as a great metaphor that is delivered masterfully by Altman.

Netflix Watch Instantly...it is the quickest and most appropriate way to enjoy this neo-classic by one of America's best and most missed auteurs.

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